Today is the best day of the year. At least, it used to be.
Before I worked at the Greatest High School in the Universe, I worked at the Greatest Independent Catholic Grammar School in the Universe: St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe School in Phoenix, AZ. It’s closed now, a fact as depressing as the burning of the library of Alexandria. Even now, I can’t think about Kolbe without tearing up.
Our experience there–and that of everyone else I know who sent their children there or had the privilege of working there–was wonderful. It wasn’t perfect, and, if I’m pressed, I could probably think of a bunch of things that needed improvement, but in my memory, all the images have the golden glow of the magic hour. Those few (those happy few) years we had at Kolbe are the best memories we have of our children’s education. In fact, probably the greatest sorrow we have as parents right now is that our youngest two children will never have Mrs. Franko as their kindergarten teacher and will never experience the joy of Kolbe School that was our strength.
The one thing that epitomizes the Kolbe experience more than any other was the All Saints Day Celebration. It truly was the best day of the year. I loved it so much I wrote a song about it.
Kolbe children prepared for this day for the first nine weeks of the school year. Each kid in K-5 spent the first quarter learning about a particular saint while students in grades 6-8 worked together to produce a play about a saint. When the day finally came, all the giddy children, dressed as their chosen saints, gathered in the great hall and bore witness one-by-one to God’s goodness as manifested in the life of the saint they had chosen. The speeches were always delightful. The kindergarteners were cuter than muppet babies and frequently flubbed or improvised lines to hilarious effect. The tween girls regularly came dressed as “tarted up” versions of famous religious women (I’m pretty sure St. Catherine Laboure didn’t wear rouge and deep scarlet lipstick), and all the boys wanted to be St. Michael the Archangel or Padre Pio.
After the youngsters gave their speeches, the junior high kids would perform their play. Most of the time, the play was something I’d write to accommodate a cast of all boys (or all girls, depending on the year). We had no budget, little talent, but heaps of heart, so every year wound up being a minor theatre miracle.
After the presentations, the fun began–chocolate fountains, kettle corn, cake walks, egg tosses, you name it. The one thing we didn’t have this day was school. It was a for-real, good old fashioned Catholic feast day. And this is why Kolbe was so wonderful. At Kolbe, the All Saints Day Celebration wasn’t Catholic window dressing; it was Catholic culture. In many schools, Catholic identity is treated like sesame seeds sprinkled on a hamburger bun. It’s an afterthought. The “bun” is like any other bun you’d find at public school. At Kolbe, Catholic identity is like yeast sprinkled into the dough. Once it’s mixed in, it might seem to disappear, but that yeast leavens the dough and makes the bread qualitatively different from what’s available elsewhere. I think this is why parents loved Kolbe so much. We did not send our children there because of what it lacked (bullying, drugs, pop culture, whatever); we sent our kids there because of what it had: the joy of the Lord, the joy of the Catholic faith, people who were just as screwed up as anywhere else, but who loved God and wanted to live as part of His family.
I’m trying to write this too quickly, so I’m sure I’m leaving out something wonderful and not being as eloquent as I might, but I want to end with saying that the best thing about sending my kids to Kolbe is that they didn’t just learn about the saints. They befriended them. And, as a consequence, my wife and I befriended them, too. Before Kolbe, I had no idea who Josephine Bakhita, Pauline Jaricot, Pier Giorgio, or Gianna Molla were. I didn’t really know Bernandette, Jacinta, Kateri, or Jude, but because my kids made friends with them, they are now really and truly part of our family. For this, I am forever grateful.
Here is the song I wrote, “All Saints Day Celebration”:
It’s long and the sound quality is sketchy, but I don’t care. I really like it. It has some of my favorite lines I’ve ever written. I think it captures the spirit of the day. I wrote it for my good friend Mary Jo Scamperle, who was (and always will be!) the principal of Kolbe. The day of the celebration we learned that the charter school that took most of our graduates was going to open a lower school which had the potential to severely affect our enrollment. There was a good chance that year’s celebration would be the last. It wasn’t, but the end came pretty shortly afterward and for heartbreakingly worse reasons. No matter. The school lives on in our hearts and in our memories as an Edenic bright spot in hoc lacrimarum valle.